By Maryann O’Connor
Samuel Dashiell Hammett was, at various points in his life, a writer of good mysteries, a detective and political activist; in short, dream fodder for other writers’ detective tales. Wim Wenders’ (with the assistance of Francis Ford Coppola) film noir homage, Hammett, follows our beleaguered hero from the paper strewn floor of his apartment, along the steep, iconic roads of San Francisco to Chinatown and back again.
Like many detective stories, it starts off with a stiff drink, a visit from an old friend and a story about a broad. Samuel Hammett (Frederic Forrest) was minding his own business and writing an overdue short story that day, the day his old pal Jimmy Ryan (Peter Boyle) turned up at his apartment. He told Hammett the story of a missing friend, a Chinese ‘cabaret’ actress by the name of Crystal Ling (Lydia Lei) who was probably in grave danger at that very moment. So, off they go to talk to some nice man in Chinatown.
His old mucker Ryan suddenly disappears and Hammett is left in it up to his neck. He even managed to lose his manuscript somewhere in the chaos. So, deadlines forgotten, he sets about rediscovering all his old detection skills to find Crystal Ling for himself. He also uncovers a whole dung heap of intrigue, dodgy connections, blackmailers and murder. Good thing he has a sidekick, Kit Conger (Marilu Henner), to alert the authorities when he doesn’t make it home and accompany him while he breaks into the apartments of the aforementioned blackmailing, no-good shysters.
Hammett is the hero of this story, as if you didn’t already know. A lot of time is spent in telling us how good and honest he is, despite his heavy drinking and any other evidence to the contrary; an angel with a dirty face. Frederic Forrest perfects the sardonic but blank faced look of a 1930s P.I. and provides a fairly likable version of Samuel Dashiell Hammett. All the performances were good enough to not get in the way of the story, which seemed fast paced but managed to drag a bit at the same time.
Like many detective stories, all the old stereotypes are there; the good, the bad and the just a little bit crooked. To be successful, they have to keep you guessing until the last moment, the moment when the most dastardly villain of them all is unmasked. Hammett didn’t quite do that but there are a couple of surprises to keep things ticking over. The best part about this film were the traditional cheesy gangster phrases. My particular favourites were; “Dames like her, they live on trouble” and “You don’t want a belly full of daylight”.
Hammett is an enjoyable enough film but it will always be more famous for the teething problems it faced during production (Wenders had to re-shoot a lot of the film because the backers didn’t like it) than the storyline and performances.